Monday, February 27, 2012

Warning Signs

(photo snapped at the Ottawa International Animation Festival by Fran Kraus)

When it comes to relationships in this biz I try to rely on my “spidey” sense, which is that little gut feeling that something is wrong. You can tell a lot about people based on how they follow through on a plan or how they handle themselves in a situation.

The first time I realized this I was working as a shift manager at a Pizza Hut when I was 17 years old. I had just come off three years working for McDonalds where I had worked up to the same position, so when I was hired at Pizza Hut they quickly bumped me up to the management position after a couple of weeks. They gave me a manager’s uniform, nametag, and made me the only manager on duty for most of my shifts. The woman who hired me, the head manager of the store, seemed very nice at first. Then, I noticed that the raise I was promised (that went along with my increased responsibilities) never materialized. Time dragged on but the head manager explained that the payroll situation was being resolved and promised there would be a retroactive check to account for the owed monies.

As much as I held out faith that I would be paid, the point of no return was three months later when my patience ran out. I was determined to have it out with her one day, but she was working up a step ladder, cleaning out an air filter with a rag. I asked her if we could discuss the money issue when she was done and she said, “No, we can talk about it now.” And, she proceeded to keep cleaning, never once looking back down at me while we talked about my missing raise. Plus, the discussion was in public. Any employee walking by could have heard us talking. The message in her attitude was so clear at this moment that it convinced me I was never getting the money that was owed me. I quit that day with no regrets.

Years later, when I began directing at Blue’s Clues, became president of ASIFA-East, and first started to build a reputation for myself in the larger industry beyond NYC, I attended the Ottawa International Animation Festival where a Hollywood bigwig took an interest in me and asked me to breakfast the next morning.

“I want to discuss your career and an opportunity for you,” he said.

The next morning we met at the agreed restaurant and as soon as we walked in, the Hollywood guy spotted a more important industry person than me and invited him to eat with us. Needless to say, the discussion about my career never took place and the supposed opportunity wasn’t brought up either. While that was disappointing, I was grateful that the Hollywood guy showed his colors so quickly. Here was someone I didn’t need to waste my time with.

I make a lot of mistakes, but I’m grateful for any moments of clarity where I had the sense to listen to my gut and avoid trouble or larger disappointments. I think everyone can better learn to listen to that inner voice that warns us to steer clear of some one or some thing. We're gonna get older either way, so we might as well also get wiser.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Kansas City Art Institute

This past Thursday/Friday I was invited to speak at the Kansas City Art Institute by it's affable animation chair Doug Hudson. Doug, who has an MFA degree in Experimental Animation at Cal Arts where he was mentored by the late great Jules Engel, is also a multimedia artist and musician. He established the Student Academy Award-winning animation department for the Kansas City Art Institute in 2004. Past guest lecturers to the KCAI animation program have included John Canemaker, Suzan Pitt, Joanna Priestley, and Phil Mulloy.

Upon arrival to the school, Doug took me out to dinner with two of his esteemed faculty: John Baker (Digital Media and Animation teacher) and Christoph Steger (assistant professor and documentary animation filmmaker). Besides comparing notes as fellow animation instructors, the friendly bunch filled me with tales of local history, such as the plethora of underground railroad tunnels dug before the Civil War.

Pre-lecture I enjoyed a relaxing chat with Christoph Steger (pictured right), where he told me he recently worked on an hour-long animated documentary made in the UK. (photo by John Baker).

My Thursday night lecture was a two-hour version of my SVA career class. My spiel is based on 14 key lessons I've learned from my time in the industry. Each lesson feels as personal to me as the films I've been making as of late. When I'm reliving each story in front of the students it feels like one part confession, one part motivational speech and one part the ravings of an animation Rabbi. What all that adds up to I have no idea, but I think everyone had a good time.

Captured in the moment by John Baker, surely reliving some industry trauma or hard-lesson learned.

The second day was a more informal chat with Doug's nine-member senior class. Knee-deep into their thesis films, some of them got up and presented animation tests, snippets of music or sound, and color studies from their works in process. The KCIA animation thesis track reminded me of RISD in the blend of experimental and narrative films on display. In addition, some students were working on projects that were part gallery installations.

After a lunch consisting of the greatest Rueben Sandwich in recorded history (great recommendation, Doug!!), I spent the rest of the afternoon having one-on-one chats with the students as they labored in a large studio space that would make cramped NYC animation students green with envy.

There are a lot of talented students in this program, and their passion to make it in this industry was undeniable. But, there was also a lot of humbleness in the air. Is that a Midwestern thing? Whatever the reason, it was refreshing to see.

The students had an acute awareness that upon graduation they needed to move to either NYC or LA. While it's true that animation artists can live anywhere today, it's important to first spend some amount of years working in an industry hub city, building up a reputation, and making contacts. After that, working from home (from anywhere) becomes a viable option. I can see some graduates of this program going out into the world and bringing those skills back to Kansas City and growing the local industry. Until then, as the students venture into this art/craft/business, I hope that they could somehow hold onto their wonderment of animation, their unassuming natures, and their obvious affection and support for each other.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Animondays Interview: Stephen Hillenburg

As an employee on a Nickelodeon production for over eight years, one of my perks was being able to attend company staff meetings where then-Nick president Herb Scannell would warmly explain the state of the company. If that wasn't enough, there was free Snapple. As part of his spiel, there would usually be video clips of upcoming Nick shows or movies. One day the clip introduced a little yellow sponge that would soon take the world by storm.

If you've never taken the SpongeBob plunge, may I recommend seasons 1-3. They are simply magic.

On one hand SpongeBob was simply part of the continuum of Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and other trickster characters with big personalities and signature loud laughs. On the other hand SpongeBob was innovative in that he ushered in the modern era of the innocent rube-like character, the naive man-child who looks at the world with unspoiled eyes. Of course this character type has existed before in literature, theatre, film, and TV, but SpongeBob gave us a new spin on the tradition and created a trend-setting phenomenon. Post SpongeBob, this character-type has echoed in animation, influencing such series as Cartoon Network's Chowder and Flap Jack.

While working at Nick in NYC, season one of SpongeBob became our water cooler conversation. So, one day I got the notion to call creator Stephen Hillenburg in Burbank to see if he'd agree to do an interview for the ASIFA-East newsletter. He agreed immediately and sent me back a great set of answers. Without further ado, here's a snapshot of the early days of SpongeBob from an interview dated April 2, 2001, and appearing for the first time in its entirety online. Enjoy!

What was your background in animation before creating, developing and producing

I attended CalArts and participated in the Experimental Animation graduate program under Jules Engel. During this time I produced two animated films, 'The Green Beret'( a short envolving a GirlScout with enormous hands) and 'Wormholes'( a short about a fly landing on a watch in 'relativityland') both of which toured the festival scene. I also created another film of straight ahead animation titled 'Animation Diary' which consisted of 365 drawings (one drawing drawn per day for the year 1991). After graduating I was hired to work on the Nickelodeon series 'Rocko's Modern Life'. I directed for three seasons and was promoted to Creative Director for the fourth season.

What pitch materials did you use to "sell" Spongebob to Nickelodeon?
I created a bible and a few paintings to explain the characters and their world. To supplement this I sculpted SpongeBob, Patrick and Squidward and put them in an aquarium where they were propelled by an air pump. I also recorded a temp theme song on a small tape recorder and mounted it inside a conch shell with a mercury switch, the song would play whenever the shell was lifted to the ear. I was also nude.

How much did the initial vision for Spongebob change or evolve from the original concept?
Did minor characters develop into more prominent roles?

Originally I wanted the show to focus on this innocent, optimistic, overly enthusiastic, sometimes odd and even magical character(SpongeBob) living this nautical fantasy world. I think we've pretty much stayed on course. The key has been finding stories where either SpongeBob prevails innocently or where his innocence causes a conflict for himself. I wanted the overall sensiblity of the world to be wild and surreal yet have logic. Most of the original cast remains with no real change in their importance.

How did you come to meet the people who work on the show like Derek Drymon, Aaron Springer, Mr. Lawrence, Sherm Cohen, and Paul Tibbitt?
I'm lucky I guess! There is a direct relationship between the success of this show and my immensely creative staff. These guys and all the other crew members are hard to find and hard to replace.A few people (Derek Drymon for example) worked on 'Rocko'. Most of the people I find through word of mouth.You have somebody on the staff you like and trust, they recommend someone they think would fit in nicely on the show. Often you're searching for someone that has the right sensibility, the appropriate sense of humor ( someone who 'gets it' ).

What, if any, roles have you taken on in producing Spongebob that you don't enjoy?
Managing people is an essential part of producing a show but managing people can be tiring. I like going to work and being creative. When the other stuff gets in the way it's a drag.

Many of the new wave of television cartoons including Courage the Cowardly Dog, Power Puff Girls and your show feature the storyboard credit prominently before each cartoon, alongside the director's name. What is the role of storyboard artists on Spongebob? In addition to their work on boards, do they make major writing and directorial contributions to the show?
On SpongeBob a writing team writes the premise. Then a Director and Storyboard artist 'team' write the episode in 'comic' or storyboard form. We do not storyboard from script.

The story ideas for spongebob are very simple, well told, entertaining and full of great little touches like the poor fish who keeps getting hit by the anchor toss in the muscle beach competition in the episode where Spongebob gets fake muscle arms. At what point do the smaller details that end up contributing so much to the overall effect get into your show? Where do these ideas come from? Do you ever wonder if one more gag or one less gag could make or break a sequence?

Our overall philosophy has been keep it simple. Try to find humor in a simple situation ( that hopefully reaches absurd proportions). Put the characters together and watch what know like red ants and black ants. We are only doing eleven minute stories so there are not alot of subplots. Sometimes we will build an entire act around one silly concept. SpongeBob and Patrick both have candy bars. Patrick is so stupid that he forgets that he has just eaten his and believes the one SpongeBob holds was his. SpongeBob is now a thief. The humor should always come from character. The ideas come from everywhere and anyone. Things like childhood memories. When developing stories we often play non-linear thinking exercises ( like pulling words out of a hat and writing a situation inspired by the word ). Ultimately the ideas that stick are the ones that consistently make everyone laugh. As far as the number of gags goes, I definitely think the pacing of a section can be bogged down by too many jokes.

Some entire episodes of Spongebob can be understood with the sound turned off....for instance, the episode in which Spongebob delights in the limitless joys of a simple piece of paper. How do you balance the visual to verbal content of the show from each episode's inception?
What probably helps most here is reviewing all drafts of the story ( after the outline stage) either as a storyboard or an animatic,
doing visual and verbal rewrites simultaneuosly.

Several episodes of Spongebob feature terrific song segments that are woven effectively into the plot lines, such as the "friendship song" sung by Plankton and SB, the "ripped my pants" song and Sandy's "wish I was back in Texas". Did the song ideas evolve out of the plot lines or did the plot lines evolve out of the song ideas?
All the above songs were written after the plot was determined.

There is an LA based group of artists that draw heavily upon cartoon (and animation) imagery in their work (Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, etc.) Have these artists or any other contemporary art world influences inspired Spongebob in any way?

I was at this museum once that had a room full of cartoony Mike Kelley drawings that were all really bizarre. A group of elementary kids led by a museum docent entered the room and got really excited about the drawings. A few were examining this depiction of I think Abe Lincoln with brain waves and others were pointing at this one drawing of a goose biting a little boy on the penis. The docent was clearly uncomfortable and quickly ushered them out of the room (against their will ) to the next exhibit. I've always wanted SpongeBob to be that compelling....did I answer the question?

Did you experience any resistance from "the network" in incorporating live-action elements into SB? (Like in "The Suds" episode when the hand reaches in and grabs the characters and washes them out)
No. They were a little worried about 'Patchy the Pirate' though.

How do you maintain the high quality look of your show when dealing with an overseas studio handling the animation?
Our overseas studio is Rough Draft. They are really the best studio in Korea for cartoony animation. Sure there's communication barriers but those guys work really hard and have some talented cartoonists on board. Also they are quite familiar with other Nickelodeon shows such as 'Ren and Stimpy' and 'Rocko's Modern Life' where layouts were done from detailed storyboards.

Did you cast the show yourself? Do you ever do any VOs on the show?
Donna Grillo and I cast the show. I would explain to Donna the specific voices I had in mind for each character and she would recommend a list of candidates. I did the voice of 'Potty' the parrot in the 'Patchy the Pirate' live action segments. Anybody can do a parrot.

What's your personal favorite SB episode to date and why?
Being so close to the project it's impossible for me to have a favorite. I think the shows get better and better. The characters become more developed, the animation more consistent.

Were Spongebob's nocturnal dream traveling adventures at least partially inspired by the Sour Puss and Gandy cartoons made at Terrytoons in the early 1940s?
I'm not sure.That was an idea Doug Lawrence hatched.

The character of Bubble Bass and Spongebob seem to have a Jerry and Newman relationship, a-la Seinfeld. What films, television shows, comics...etc, do you draw creative inspiration from?
For this particular series anything that deals with 'Candide'-like innocence. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Pee-Wee,
The Muppets. Movies like 'My Life as a Dog' or 'A Christmas Story'. Also Popeye, Beany and Cecil, Krazy Kat, Dr.Suess, Yellow Submarine, Calvin and Hobbes. I should mention that a great deal of the inspiration for the series came from my interest in marine biology and surf culture.

Spongebob draws a large adult following. Are you surprised that adults have taken to your show?
Yes and no. It is Saturday am TV, but since we write things that make us laugh one could assume other adults would also find the show amusing. We definitely don't pander to kids...but we also try not to write over their heads. I was more surprised to hear about college students playing drinking games while watching 'Blue's Clues'.

What animated shows, if any, do you measure your work on Spongebob against or consider your creative competition.
'Ren and Stimpy' and 'The Simpsons' raised the bar for all TV animation. Those shows really inspired us to try to do something memorable or maybe even groundbreaking. At they same time we are fighting hard to not copy them. Always asking 'How can we not be like those shows?'

What independent animators/animated films do you admire?
Jules Engel. He's singlehandedly taught and inspired countless independent animators. His age is a mystery.

Paul Driessen. When I was thirteen I went to a Tournee of Animation and saw 'The Killing of an Egg'. That film made a lasting impression on me.

Richard Condie. 'The Big Snit' has got to be one of the greatest indies ever.

If you had three wishes, what would they be?
1.Pleasure for all things living and non-living.
2.To never have to 'high five' an industry executive.
3.That they resume production of 'Tombow'2B pencil.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Animondays Interview: Nina Paley

Nina Paley beaming with pride in front of NYC's IFC Theatre with her film on the Marquee. Her feature ran at the theatre from Dec 25-31, 2009.

When I wrote my recent book, Directing Animation, it was an absolute must to talk to Nina Paley for two reasons. One, she made a wonderful and practically self-funded and self-produced feature length animated film: Sita Sings the Blues. And, two, she inadvertently pioneered a new means of distribution in the process. When I asked Nina if she'd agree to an interview for my book, her one condition was that we chat on the phone instead of emailing a set of questions and answers back and forth. This worked out really well and allowed me to better explore certain areas with follow up questions. Luckily I was able to type as fast as we talked. Maybe if my animation career stalls I can fall back as a Steno.

Without further ado, appearing for the first time in its entirety, here's my interview with Nina Paley from September 16, 2009:

An emotional moment from "Sita," in a film chock-full of them.

1-What skill sets go into directing animation for a feature film?
I directed my computer, not other animators... so from my experience, the important part was knowing how to use and work with my computer. Sita happened magically. Its based on an old and long story. It appeared with the story structure in place, the beginning, middle and end were already there.

I wasn't sitting around wanting to do a feature. I had no intention of doing a feature film. But, I felt compelled to make it real. There's a reason I'm not making another feature. I will only do it if another idea comes along that makes me have to do it.

I get lots of ideas, so I can't possibly make all of them into pieces of art... but, some of them stick and won't go next thing is a book, but not because I want to write a book.

I don't know what's a good or bad reason to make art.. there's all kinds of motiviations.... being an artist is hard, there's not really money in it... so having a motivation other then money seems good. There should be some reason to do it other than money.

2-Can you list some common mistakes and challenges that are faced by the first time feature animation director?
I only made one feature... but, I will say that one man's mistake is another man's virtue. People give you a lot of warnings about mistakes you can make... I think that sometimes the biggest mistake you can make is listening to those warnings, especially listening on copyright issues. The advice there is wrong, technically and morally wrong. Listen to your quiet inner voice instead. Sita would not have existed if I had listened to the advice I got.

There are lawyers that are writing this info on copyright, warning us: just don't use old stuff, only use stuff that's clear, and raise the money first. But, you don't have to raise the money first nowadays... art doesn't obey any laws. Tell that to the muse... or don't tell it to the muse.

3-How, if at all, is directing a feature different then directing shorts?
There were differences... I knew the story would have to be structurally different... there had to be something that held everything together. It doesn't always come together... I see a lot of features where something is just not there. Possibly I was lucky becasuse (as a solo effort) I wasn't destroyed by committee.

4-What part of directing a feature gave you the most satisfaction?
A lot of things. One thing was the commitment of it. Knowing what it was.. having a large and clear goal... Every day I felt I could work on it. There was a daily communion with art. Once I made the commitment, I didn't worry about whether it was crazy, I just did what I needed to do each day.

5-Where did you learn your sense of timing, acting, staging, and storytelling that is so essential in directing feature animation?
I was not formally trained. Probably I learned like how you learn how to talk: by listening. It's like a language. I picked it up by observing and being exposed to media.

Another eye-popping moment from "Sita."

6-How long did your feature production take, how did you pay for it, and how would you describe your distribution model?
3 years of work spread over 5 years of time. I started in 2005, finished in 2008. The very beginnings of it were in 2002, as a short. I took a few breaks to do freelance work. One really great thing, once I was committed to the project and willing to be poor, I called my parents to ask if I ran out of money, if I could go back and live with them...and they said, "yes." So I had that to fall back on. I very consciously avoided worrying about the money. I had a new age approach to it that it will work out: "You'll be OK no matter what. You can sleep on peoples' sofas...people won't let you die."

I read the comments on cartoonbrew and talk to artists, and there is a real fear of starving to death, but the fact is your friends and family won't let you starve to death... even me (and I have a stressful relationship with my family). And, I will take care of others the same way.

3 ways to reckon the budget is: it was $80,000 for production costs, without food and rent. This included sound design, commisioning music, actors, dubs and prints.

If you include food and rent, the total cost would be $200,000. My primary expense was me. The costs of licensing the music was $70,000. That broke down to $50,000 in license fees and 20,000 for transactions costs.

I didn't think of finishing the film as a tool to raise this money. And when I was finished, I was prohibited by law to give it away for free. The law distinguishes between commercial and non commercial infringement. Either way I could have gone to jail. I cleared these things because I wanted to show it for free... There's more money in showing it for free than with a proprietary conventional distrubition model. You need a ton of money to promote a feature, and access to theatres. If you are an independent, you don't control the media stream. A film that has a small promotion budget is a killer, so many small films have been released but there haven't been enough publicity around them. Their costs are never recouped. Most feature filmmakers I've talked to have made zero dollars on the back end. Their investors paid them a salary/advance to make the film, 10 or 20 thousand dollars.

If you're lucky, people will see your film. I can be broke without the help of a distributor. More can see it if I release it freely.
Ten years ago it would have been very different. The film could not exist. Ten years ago it would have gone through a conventional distribution. Now the internet offers all these fab ways to share information...

Today the only limited resource is peoples' minds. There's not enough hours in the day to pay attention to all the good stuff. There's so much stuff I want to read and look at each day. There's competition over eyeballs... over peoples' attention.

The good thing about competition is if things are good, they are likelier to... you know, quality is a kind of the survival of the fittest right now. The model we are emerging from is the winner takes all, and a few things take over everything––becoming mega popular. The execs are all looking for that... something that can be really good but only attract a small audience won't interest that old exec. In the new model you can get some kind of audience for almost anything, but it takes time and there's a lot of stuff competing... The stuff that will get eyeballs is stuff people recommend to other people. Things don't have to be blockbusters.

There were a lot of steaming turds that did fine in the three-network TV days because we all just watched what was on TV that night, but, nowadays if you make a turd, it competes with a lot of other stuff that people might like more because it's better. That's why old media has its nickers in a twist.